Marin Laak (Estonian Literary Museum)

Content-Based Environments of Literary History as the Basis of Computational Literary Studies

Keywords: digital heritage collections, literary history, hypertext, computational literary studies, corpus linguistics

The aim of my paper is to discuss the usage of cultural heritage collections in the context of the explosive growth of digital cultural heritage and text resources. What kind of experiences and challenges do we have from the literary studies perspective?

The primary question is how to bridge the gap between the research possibilities offered by the contemporary LT&TDM and the increasing resources of texts and other digital data, produced by memory institutions. This has proved to be a complicated task and international practice has shown that literary scholars are slower to embrace new practices than linguists for whom corpus-based research is already a professional standard. In general, literary scholars are more used to working with traditional methods, analysing them as undivided poetical and semantic entities (Schriebman et al).

The Estonian Literary Museum has since the 1990s been one of the pioneering institutions in the field of literary studies and folkloristics in our country. We were applying DH tools in creating of the content based interactive information systems and scientific databases. The aim of my paper is to argue the research challenges of literature based on cultural heritage sources using DH methods and computing technology.

The most general question we have asked is whether Digital Humanities can essentially be considered as a tool or a method for literary research, or is it an entirely new approach in literary studies, having a potential to change literary theory significantly. (Viires, Laak 2018) This question is particularly relevant when we talk about electronic literature, multimedia poetry and other interactive literary forms that cannot be considered as “traditional humanities research objects” any more and can exist only in the digital environment. Although the field of Digital Humanities is broad, the meaning of DH is often reduced to methods of computational language-centered analyses, mainly based on using different tools and software languages (R, Python, network analysis, topic modelling etc.).

During the past twenty years, my research has mainly been focussed on developing large-scale implementation projects for digital representation of Estonian literary history. The objective of these experimental projects has been to develop principally new non-linear models of literary history for the digital environment (similar to the pioneering “Women Writers Project” at the Brown university).

We started with the first content-based project of literary history titled “ERNI. Estonian Literary History in Texts 1924-1925” at the Estonian Literary Museum in 1997 ( Its objective was to use a relatively limited amount of well-studied source texts focussing on the intertextual relations of literary reviews and works of literature in the 1920s. A new digital model of literary history was presented in the form of an interactive hypertextual network of texts, based on literary source texts, reviews and discussions. The challenge was to remediate the printed book format of literary history into digital text models. (Bolter, Grusin 1999) We re-conceptualised literary history as a system, and the non-linear narrative as a gallery with many entrances. ERNI was one of the first successful Tiger Leap projects in Estonia. Our main task was to ensure its usability in the field of education. We cooperated with school teachers in developing this project and added a significant number of study materials and a questionnaire.

In 2004, we initiated our long-term and still running project “Kreutzwald’s Century: the Estonian Cultural History Web” ( at the Estonian Literary Museum. The objective of the project is to make all literary sources of the period accessible as the dynamic, interactive information environment and by doing this, to develop a full model of Estonian literary history. This was a hybrid project which synthesised the classical study of literary history, the needs of the digital media user, and the expanding digital resources from different memory institutions; its underlying idea was to link together all the works of fiction of an author, as well as their biography, manuscripts and photos and to make them visible for the user on five interactive time axes. The project uses special software.

However, these two content-based models of literary heritage will need some further conceptualisation: how can such kind of modelling projects be fitted into the context of Digital Humanities?

The provocative question remains: can we talk about “digital literary studies”, encompassing all the previously mentioned research areas, including the modelling of content-based environments, or can we take such research activities as a new discipline in the realm of Digital Humanities? (Viires, Laak 2018)

This question is better understood while comparing the previous modelling practices with our current experimental project in the corpus query system KORP, developed in cooperation with the Centre of Language Resources at the University of Tartu. Our interdisciplinary project “Literary Studies Meet Corpus Linguistics” focussed on studying literary history sources with linguistic methods.

KORP allows us to organise the statistics by all the categories used in the corpus, for example, to learn who of the authors mentioned André Gide and when in the texts held in the corpus. From the statistics drawn from the corpus we can see that it was mainly J. Semper who talked about Gide in 1926 to 1930, discussing him with his friend during writing his master’s thesis “The structure of the literary style of André Gide” at the University of Tartu, and later, when studying Gide in relation with his work as the university lecturer of aesthetics and stylistics.

Our latest and still continuing project is the morphologically annotated “text corps of the history of literary criticism”, carried out in cooperation with the computational linguists of the University of Tartu. This corpus contains texts of literary reviews and criticism in different genres, drawn from the projects ERNI and “Kreutzwald’s Century”. We launched the project only this spring, but the first results in studying the dynamics of literary values can already be seen.


Cultural heritage sources in libraries and archives have a great scientific value for literary scholars, but promise a linguistic importance as well.

Applying the corpus linguistic methods in literary studies has a rich potential only if we convert the digitised sources into machine-readable format.

Analysing the characteristics of computational literature, N. Katherine Hayles concludes her article with a statement regarding literary theory: “The urgent challenge digital textuality presents for criticism is to reenvision and rearticulate legacy concepts in terms appropriate to the dynamics of networked and programmable media.“ (Hayles 2007) The question – is Digital Humanities a method and a tool or a new theory – is still waiting for an answer.


This research has been supported by the European Regional Development Fund (Centre of Excellence in Estonian Studies – CEES TK145) and is related to research project IUT 22-2 “Formal and Informal Networks of Literature based on Cultural Sources” (Estonian Research Council).


Bolter, J. D. & Grusin, R. A. (1999). Remediation: understanding new media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Hayles, N. Katherine (2007). Intermediation: The Pursuit of a Vision. – New Literary History, Vol. 38, No. 1, What Is Literature Now? (Winter, 2007), 99–125.

Laak, Marin; Veskis, Kaarel; Gerassimenko, Olga; Kahusk, Neeme; Vider, Kadri (2019). Literary Studies Meet Corpus Linguistics: Estonian Pilot Project of Private Letters in KORP. – DHN 2019 Digital Humanities in the Nordic Countries 4th Conference Copenhagen, Denmark, March 5-8, 2019. Ed. Costanza Navarretta, Manex Agirrezabal, Bente Maegaard. – CEUR Workshop Proceedings, Vol. 2634, 283−294.

Schreibman, S., Siemens, R. & Unsworth, J. (2015). A New Companion to Digital Humanities. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd,

Viires, Piret; Laak, Marin (2018). Digital Humanities Meets Literary Studies: the Challenges for Estonian Scholarship. Distinguished Short Paper. Digital Humanities in the Nordic Countries. 3rd Conference. Helsinki 7-9 March 2018. Helsinki: Helsinki University.